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Faces of Our Faith: Queen Vashti

The Rev. Bart Smith
The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 16, 2018)
Esther 1:1-2:4

This is what happened back when Ahasuerus lived, the very Ahasuerus who ruled from India to Cush—one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all. At that time, Ahasuerus ruled the kingdom from his royal throne in the fortified part of Susa. In the third year of his rule he hosted a feast for all his officials and courtiers. The leaders of Persia and Media attended, along with his provincial officials and officers. He showed off the awesome riches of his kingdom and beautiful treasures as mirrors of how very great he was. The event lasted a long time—six whole months, to be exact!

After that the king held a seven-day feast for everyone in the fortified part of Susa. Whether they were important people in the town or not, they all met in the walled garden of the royal palace. White linen curtains and purple hangings were held up by shining white and red-purple ropes tied to silver rings and marble posts. Gold and silver couches sat on a mosaic floor made of gleaming purple crystal, marble, and mother-of-pearl. They served the drinks in cups made of gold, and each cup was different. The king made sure there was plenty of royal wine. The rule about the drinks was “No limits!” The king had ordered everyone serving wine in the palace to offer as much as each guest wanted.

At the same time, Queen Vashti held a feast for women in King Ahasuerus’ palace.

On the seventh day, when wine had put the king in high spirits, he gave an order to Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Carcas, the seven eunuchs who served King Ahasuerus personally. They were to bring Queen Vashti before him wearing the royal crown. She was gorgeous, and he wanted to show off her beauty both to the general public and to his important guests.

But Queen Vashti refused to come as the king had ordered through the eunuchs.

The king was furious, his anger boiling inside. Now, when a need arose, the king would often talk with certain very smart people about the best way to handle it… So the king said to them, “According to the law, what should I do with Queen Vashti since she didn’t do what King Ahasuerus ordered her through the eunuchs?”

Then Memucan spoke up in front of the king and the officials. “Queen Vashti,” he said, “has done something wrong not just to the king himself. She has also done wrong to all the officials and the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. This is the reason: News of what the queen did will reach all women, making them look down on their husbands. They will say, ‘King Ahasuerus ordered servants to bring Queen Vashti before him, but she refused to come.’ This very day, the important women of Persia and Media who hear about the queen will tell the royal officials the same thing. There will be no end of put-downs and arguments. Now, if the king wishes, let him send out a royal order and have it written into the laws of Persia and Media, laws no one can ever change. It should say that Vashti will never again come before King Ahasuerus. It should also say that the king will give her royal place to someone better than she. When the order becomes public through the whole empire, vast as it is, all women will treat their husbands properly. The rule should touch everyone, whether from an important family or not.”

The king liked the plan, as did the other men, and he did just what Memucan said. He sent written orders to all the king’s provinces. Each province received it written in its own alphabet and each people received it in its own language. It said that each husband should rule over his own house.

Sometime later when King Ahasuerus was less angry, he remembered Vashti, what she had done, and what he had decided about her. So his young male servants said, “Let the king have a search made for beautiful young women who haven’t yet married. And let the king choose certain people in all the royal provinces to lead the search. Have them bring all the beautiful young women together to the fortified part of Susa, to the women’s house, to the care of Hegai the king’s eunuch in charge of the women so that he might provide beauty treatments for them. Let the young woman who pleases you the most take Vashti’s place as queen.” The king liked the plan and implemented it.

The word for all of this is excess—excessive, over-the-top, and absurd.

If you were snickering when Rob read this, that’s good, because this story is supposed to be funny… in a dark, gallows humor sort of way. It was written long ago by Jewish people to lampoon their Persian overlords. And it works. How ridiculous does King Ahasuerus come across in this story? He plays the part of the buffoon really well.

Let’s think some more about the dark comedy in all of this. The numbers all point to excess. The empire had 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia (probably not). The debaucherous party for the princes and governors lasted 180 days (that’s half a year!) before the seven day, open bar party for everyone in the capital. When Ahasuerus tried for half a year to show off all his wealth and power, he then summons the “crown jewel”, Queen Vashti, and gets seven eunuchs to escort her. And when he summons sages (lawyer or astronomer types) to help him figure out what to do with his insubordinate wife, he summons seven of them as well.

Like I said, over-the-top.

When Ahasuerus asks Vashti to leave the party she was throwing for the women and come to the “boys” party at the palace, he wants to show off her beauty. He wants her to dance for crowd. Can you imagine? The text says Ahasuerus asks the eunuchs to have Vashti show up wearing the royal crown. Some rabbis speculate that he demands that she come wearing only the royal crown.

So what does Vashti do?

Well, we don’t see her. She never appears on the stage. She’s given no lines in the drama. We don’t get a sense of her thought process. All we know is that she refused the king’s order.

She said “No.”

And that No sent shockwaves throughout the empire.

True to form, with more excess, the king and his officials fear that Vashti’s No will embolden all the wives in the empire to say “No” to their husbands and then the whole world will fall apart, so they depose the Queen as a deterrent. “That’ll teach ‘em.”

We don’t know what happens to Vashti after that, but we do know that her No paves the way for a future queen, Esther, and the summary of her story is that she saves her people, the Jewish people, from annihilation.

Vashti’s story underscores sometimes how important it is to say “No.”

Think of all the Nos that shape us into the kind of people we are today. That time we stood up to the bully on the playground: “No, leave him alone!” The time we stood up for our own dignity, “No, I won’t do that.” The time we bucked authority because an order violated our principles: “No, sir, I will not comply.” The time we resisted a demeaning joke, “No, that’s not funny or OK.”

When have you said “No” in order to uphold your integrity, like Vashti? How has that No been pivotal in your life?

Not only saying “No” when confronted with a moral dilemma, but how has saying “No” changed you—saying No to the constant, frenetic demands of daily life, or in the face of pressures to conform, or against your natural instincts to accommodate, please, or avoid conflict?

Think of all the Nos that have shifted the course of history. The whistleblowers. The protesters. The people who stood in front of tanks. The students who said, “No, I won’t leave my stool at this diner” or Ms. Parks who said, “No, I will not give up my seat to a white man.”

In this chapter of our country’s history, the chapter we’re in, will we look back and remember that we replied with a resounding “No”?

No, we will not allow you to detain and deport members of our community. No, we will not tolerate the separation of children from their parents and the incarceration of over 12,000 of them. No, places like Tornillo, TX, where they are constructing more tents for thousands of kids to sleep in, will not let that happen.

No, the cartoonish excesses of greed in our own society, not OK. The absurdities of income inequality (see a recent article entitled “America’s Real Economy: It Isn’t Booming”), not OK. The gutting of the social safety net at the expense of the most vulnerable in our midst, No, we will will not abide with all of that injustice.

Vashti, as an often-overlooked Face of Our Faith, reminds us that sometimes faithfulness takes the shape of “No.” As Anna Carter Florence observes:

“We don’t have many role models for just saying no, especially from the Bible. It’s true that Jesus put his foot down on several occasions, but we tend to think of our Christian faith in terms of saying YES — to God, to Christ, to love, to the law. Maybe what we need to hear is that an equally important part of our life as Christians is finding the courage and the encouragement to say NO when we need to, not because it’s the easy thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

One reason why I really like these obscure stories from the Old Testament is that they remind us that history is not really a straight line of progress, but cyclical. We keep coming back to the same problems, time and time again. There will always be greedy, power-hungry, egotistical tyrants.

Did you notice how God isn’t mentioned in this story? It’s true for the whole book of Esther, actually. Yet the Holy One is at work here, without a doubt. As cyclical all of this is, so is the subtle faithfulness of God. God will always stir up the courage in people like Vashti to say “No” in the face of cruelty, humiliation, and injustice.

As Stephanie mentioned during the children’s sermon, No is a short word, but often the hardest ones to say.

May God find in us people, like Vashti, willing to say “No.”

Featured image: “I Dance Alone” by Hannah Garrity with A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.